My wife Min and I were out looking for a new shower curtain liner the other day, prior to meeting our friend Christa for dinner. The list of purchasing criteria was short. It needed to be not made of vinyl, and washable. There was nothing wrong with how our existing vinyl liner functioned. It kept the water in the shower as opposed to on the floor. The only problem was that vinyl products generally contain significant amounts of Bisphenol-A (BPA), a plastic additive, exposure to which causes disruption of endocrine hormones. We will come back to this piece of the puzzle later in the post.
Settling on a color and successfully deploying one of our beloved Bed, Bath and Beyond coupons that magically appear in the mailbox, we headed out to meet Christa and head to dinner. On the walk there we caught up with our collective news. Christa is in the midst of an intense training and certification program for yoga instruction. Min and I had just returned from a combined business and family visit to China. When we got around to the topic of our shopping trip, I started to give the Cliff Notes background on BPA, why it was a problem and how we were trying to reduce our exposure, when Christa stopped me in my tracks. “Michael, I worked at Toys”R”Us when the controversy over BPA in plastic baby bottles broadsided the company. My group was in charge of investigating the problem, forming the public response, and planning a new corporate approach to screening products for toxic substances.” Note to self: ask things like “What do you know about X?” before putting on the professor hat.
I met up with Christa a few days later to get more detail about the situation at Toys”R”Us. I will make an attempt to summarize the landslide of great information she provided:
The BPA crisis spurred a tremendous amount of action, not bound merely to the problem at hand. It was the impetus that launched the company into social media. It learned to use these channels as a new way of communicating with customers. The company was insistent that it first collect all the data it needed to understand the full scope of the problems before it implemented new control processes. Vendor management took on a greater sense of importance. Traceability had previously been almost non-existent, and with so many toys sourced from places like China, lack of knowledge about the inputs and processes involved in production was now understood to be a massive business risk. The efforts to address these concerns led to collaboration between the public relations group, merchants and partners at a level unseen before. A major program revolved around the education of toy buyers (predominately mothers), so that they could learn about the risks associated with things like lead paint and BPA. The marketing group developed new signage (a green “R” with a leaf) to call attention to certified safe products. Indeed the entire marketing and branding of the company began to be rethought. They utilized a microsite (subset of the website) to connect directly with moms. A “bring your kids to work” program was created around the theme of environment and sustainability. Frogs (common leading indicators of the health of an ecosystem) were used to get children (and parents) engaged in the concept of making sustainable choices. Finally, Toys”R”Us began to incorporate LEED certification in its retail strategy, beginning construction on a LEED Bronze store in Paramus, NJ that featured natural light, rain water catchment, and non-toxic paint. This was to serve as a prototype for future store development.
So back to the shower curtain. What makes BPA such a problem? It affects everyone, but developing fetuses and small children are particularly vulnerable. It alters the levels of endocrine hormones, which has effects ranging from learning disabilities to diseases and altered sexual development. This article by Richard Liroff goes into detail about the wide range of detrimental effects. In addition to vinyl, it is also found in clear, hard plastics in category #7 known as polycarbonates. Examples are older models of Nalgene bottles and the big blue containers that sit atop office water coolers. It is also found in the linings of aluminum beverage cans and metal food cans. This highlights one of the big problems that leads to overexposure and makes avoidance difficult. All of these products contain small amounts of BPA, which was how many companies were able to persuade regulators for years that there was nothing wrong with it being in their products. But we are exposed to low doses of the substance on a round-the-clock basis. It is everywhere you look, in the things you eat, wear and use to apply various cosmetics. For a very thorough analysis of BPA, other additives, products to evaluate and a larger discussion of addressing the risk of plastics in a business model, please see Ellie Moss’ recent article. Ellie is a consultant with Blu Skye in San Francisco.
BPA is currently banned in Chicago, the State of Minnesota and Suffolk County, NY. The Endocrine Disruption Prevention Act of 2009 (H.R.4190/S.2828) was introduced by Representative Jim Moran and Senator John Kerry last December. As of the writing of this post, the EPA has joined the FDA in adding BPA to its list of chemicals of concern. Look for this blog to provide continued analysis of BPA and other plastic issues in future posts.
In case you were wondering, I am now the proud owner of a cream colored, nylon, washable curtain liner.